There was something odd going on at Old Trafford yesterday. There was the Pogba emoji (cut into his hair as well as on the advertising boards), the Pogba hashtag (swirling, dazzling) and then there was that spider-cam thing (zooming, following) giving us NEVER SEEN BEFORE footage. It was all a bit weird. A dystopian circus in a post-truth haze. The Theatre of Dreams became the Chamber of Content.
The heart-on-sleeve Fergie years have been replaced with the dab-on-demand Pogba years, and his first half performance yesterday was truly bizarre. The absurdities of an £89m transfer for a 23 year-old boy were visible in the dizzying lights of the Stretford End, and Pogba’s actions were those of someone who had lost their head. Here are some thoughts, theories and reasons for the weight on Pogba’s shoulders caving in yesterday.
Pogba became the first actual real-life living human being to be supplied with a free personal Twitter emoji last week. The PR people at team Pogba and team Manchester United are having to work very hard to justify an outlay of £89m on a player who is undeniably talented but has so far been undeniably underwhelming, and creating an emoji for him is clearly the best way to seek justification.
So, to say Pogba lost his head yesterday is one of literal and metaphorical importance – and definitely not an overstatement. Rather than allowing him to keep his head to himself, the marketers and PR-ers decapitated Pogba last week and supplied his head to the twitching fingers of the world. Pogba’s head came off his body and attached itself to your emoji keyboard. Nice one, team.
As emojis infiltrate our daily life deeper and deeper, they are becoming an intrinsic part of our language, and maybe even a language of their own. If phonetic languages are entities that develop freely and organically, then a language that is created by one of the biggest technology companies in the world is surely limiting and controlling.
In a tech-soaked world where gigantic corporations are deciding on what we can say with this new language, it is a pretty heavy load to hold for Paul Pogba to be the first human emoji, and therefore the first emoji name.
Richard Arnold, United’s group managing director wrote on their official website that “this emoji is another great tool for our supporters to connect with the club through a digital environment, particularly as the excitement builds for Sunday’s match against Liverpool”.
Old Trafford yesterday was a digital environment, like some weird Augmented Reality experiment put on by a Shoreditch PR company, and the human beings – even the most talented human beings in the world – started to act weird.
Imagine playing football in front of 80,000 real actual people in a real actual stadium and then tens of millions of real actual people in front of TV screens and then imagine it whilst your name swirls around the pitch in bright lights next to a rendering of your head (which, as noted above, you have lost) and think about how you might act. You’d probably have a bit of a funny turn, and by that I don’t mean a Cruyff one.
Out of Home International, who control the advertising boards at Old Trafford, state on their website that your advert ‘reaches a captive audience who cannot switch off from your message as the advert is part of the game itself.’ The nature of marketing excesses is nothing new to football: football is first and foremost a business. But, for a player to take part in a game whilst their name relentlessly circled the edge of the pitch is a scary new dawn. Pogba is now reduced to being the advert that Out of Home International describe as being ‘part of the game itself’.
Adverts, however, aren’t usually live. They are predetermined pieces of content designed to create maximum impact on its viewer. Before being utilised they will have been moodboarded, designed, edited, scrutinized and contemplated to the finest detail. But this couldn’t happen with Pogba’s performance yesterday. He was a live advert, a breathing, moving physical manifestation of content. And for the advert to make maximum impact, he too had to make maximum impact. For the monetary expense of the emoji and the hashtag to be of worth, Pogba needed to be spoken about.
In which case, is it possible that Pogba was actually asked to do a madness? “If you don’t feel like you are impacting the game positively today, Paul, then just make sure you do SOMETHING for people to talk about”. His emoji and hashtag had to be utilised, and if that was by doing a madness, then that would have to do.
So, conspiring that Paul Pogba took on the role of premium content creator set for him by his PR overlords, he set about doing some pretty crazy stuff yesterday. In fact, his first 45 minutes was about as bizarre a performance as I have ever seen.
He wandered around, lost the ball and looked dazed. He scuffed a good chance with his left foot early on, but it was his marking of Liverpool centre-back Dejan Lovren that was the real talking point. Pogba had a torrid time in attempting to mark Lovren from corners, and completely lost his bearings three corners in row, with the last one leading to Liverpool’s penalty.
With the corner swung in, Pogba didn’t look at the ball or at Lovren and got himself in a big tangle. By the time he’d identified where the ball was in the air, he was either disorientated, intimidated or intent on the madness. Jumping with his hands in the air, Pogba misses the ball with his head and unequivocally dabs the ball.
Paul Pogba DABS the ball in a middle of a football match. His favourite dance move and ultimate PR tool extends from the world of the digital to the world of the physical. The dab, the only teen fad of 2016 to remotely challenge bottle flipping for popularity, is put to use in the most bigged up game of the season so far by its most famous patron whilst his name and face swirls around in lights and his face is emojicised by millions. Loopy.
It was a very strange thing to witness, and stranger still – Pogba didn’t even get a card for a deliberate handball in the area.
Fast forward five minutes and Pogba is either completely flustered after giving away the penalty, or worried that his madness hasn’t gone far enough to break the internet. This time, he’s attacking a corner and Jordan Henderson is marking him.
In what can only be described as something more often seen in the wrestling ring, Pogba wraps his arm around Henderson’s neck, headlock style, and throws him to the ground. It’s pretty awful to watch, and the kind of neck-breaking move that if Bruce Willis were to do it against a baddie in Die Hard, that baddie would be ended.
Henderson was not ended; in fact he played really well, probably spurred on by the fact that it was not his name haunting the touchlines of the pitch. The referee, Michael Oliver, had a pretty good view of the incident yet chose not to give a foul or to book Pogba. Interesting...
Pogba No Cards
If we’re talking money and content, here, which we kind of are, then it would have been a bad thing for money and content to have Pogba sent off. Yes, he would have secured the headlines, tweets and clickbait articles that the PR-ers craved, but he wouldn’t have had the chance to score the winner or do a scorpion kick or do any more madnesses. It was worth more to keep him on than take him off.
With my tin foil hat firmly cellotaped to my mushy head, is it then possible that Michael Oliver was in on the whole thing too? “Oi, Mike, whatever he does and however often he does it, make sure Paul Pogba stays on the pitch today” I can see the PR top brass telling him as he takes the last swig from his Lucozade Sport before leaving the dressing room. Oliver is in a small pot of hot water himself thanks to recent performances, and probably has to do what he is told right now.
Pogba is Great At Football
But the thing is, removing all of the madnesses yesterday, Paul Pogba is a truly fantastic footballer. His vanity and cockiness is entertaining, his clothes are great and he seems to genuinely enjoy playing football – which is always a reassuring quality to observe as a football fan. He’s also really, really young.
The content circus surrounding him, however, is not fantastic. He looked like a bambi in front of headlights and a big nasty lorry yesterday, and it isn’t difficult to work out why. Conspiracy theories aside, Pogba has a hell of a lot of intrusion and attention to deal with, which for a 23 year old boy must be incredibly tough. If I was to have my name and portrait follow me around like an unwanted Pokemon and a Spider-Cam doing the same, I’d probably have had the whole stadium in sleeper-holds by the final whistle. And they’d all be ended.
Let's hope Pogba can hoist his head off your Twitter feed and plonk it back onto his own body before the season ends.